Rethinking Foreign Policy

Lessons from Latin America

The reports of the Central American truth commissions are not just about events that took place against the backdrop of the cold war. They are about the United States today, and the role we intend to play in the world.

In early March, President Bill Clinton visited Central America to call attention to the devastation of Hurricane Mitch. In Guatemala City, the focus of the presidential visit shifted suddenly away from the random violence of nature to the purposeful violence of men. On the eve of Clinton’s visit, the United Nations-sponsored Guatemalan truth commission, known as the Commission for Historical Clarification, went public with its report which lays bare the savagery of the Guatemalan military.

President Clinton deserves high marks for his comments on the report of the truth commission. He did not vacillate, he did not equivocate; he stated that the United States had been wrong to support Guatemalan "military forces and intelligence units engaged in widespread repression," and he added, "We are determined to remember our past but never repeat it." Had Clinton ignored our government’s heavy responsibility for the Guatemalan tragedy he would have strengthened the hand of the still-powerful militarists and undercut struggling democratic forces not only in Guatemala but in all of Central America.

If we had to choose one place and time where U.S. policy toward Latin America went wrong, the...

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About the Author

Robert E. White, a former United States ambassador to El Salvador and Paraguay, is president of the Center for International Policy.